The Greatest Game: The Indo-Pacific
While India has to fashion its own Guard Northwest Policy, the United States exit from Kabul is a net strategic negative for China
The Taliban back in Kabul is geopolitically less important than the United States (US) being out of Kabul for good. Washington has been trying to wriggle out of Afghanistan for over a decade. President Joe Biden bit the bullet badly, but the US is now broadcasting on all channels that Central Asia is a strategic closed chapter.
The Greatest Game is the Indo-Pacific; carrying on in the Khyber was a distraction for the US. Obviously, it’s not that simple for India, which will have to craft a response to what is now a united AfPak entity. But New Delhi will come to the view that the US withdrawal is a net strategic positive because it is a net strategic negative for China.
It is no surprise that the US decided to leave. Biden is the third US president who made Quit Afghanistan a priority. Having seen up close how phased withdrawal plans allowed the US military to run circles around Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Biden chose to go cold turkey and ride out what would follow. The bellwether was the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance issued by the new administration in March. Not only did it say Afghanistan was the type of war that the US “should not, and will not, engage in”, there was no mention of Central Asia at all.
The guidance stated “our vital national interests compel the deepest connection to the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Western Hemisphere”. Africa and West Asia got a second-tier mention. Then it ends. That the withdrawal proved a greater shambles than he expected won’t change his view that this was a necessary decision. Even as the last US plane left Kabul, a defiant Biden said, “To those asking for a third decade of war in Afghanistan, I ask: What is the vital national interest?”
US intelligence assessments indicated Russia and China, the US’s primary foes, were pleased it was stuck in an Afghan bog. It is telling that home-grown white supremacists are the primary terrorist threat to the US today. And of the remaining Islamist threats, director of National Intelligence Avril Haines has said the Afghan-based ones are fifth on the list. When Central Intelligence Agency director William Burns came to India and Pakistan to discuss the Taliban, his main message was that the US was not going back in, not now, not ever.
What some scholars are dubbing the “Biden Doctrine” already has a number of foundational positions.
The US is facing an existential threat in the form of a China that is much more challenging than the erstwhile Soviet Union. Beijing is also fusing its autocratic polity with digital technology to create a genuine alternative to democracy. The US, on the other hand, has been suffering from imperial overstretch for several years and needs to retrench. Afghanistan was the most striking example of the US shortening its forward lines in preparation for a larger conflict. The US has begun closing bases, withdrawing boots and wheels, in West Asia as well.
The other reason for Biden’s urgency is his agenda of reviving elite legitimacy in the US. Trump was a warning shot across the bow of the American establishment. Trump’s election and large parts of his agenda reflected a Middle America revolt against Washington’s post-World War consensus including free trade, excessive financialisation and “forever wars”. One facet was a widespread support for isolationism. Almost everything the US president is doing today on the legislative front is designed to overcome this popular discontent and restore trust in the ruling system and its worldview. Ending the Afghan war was the key foreign policy element of this attempt at a drawing up a new social contract. While a majority of Americans were horrified at the chaos in Kabul, they remained equally supportive of withdrawal. Abandoning parts of the world that bled the US for minimal strategic benefit is seen as a necessary antidote to isolationism – and allow Washington to refocus on theatres such as the Indo-Pacific.
The real test of the Biden administration’s foreign policy as far as India is concerned should be whether the US doubles down on the Indo-Pacific. The announcement of AUKUS is evidence the Afghan exit will not stop the US investing strategic capital in the Indo-Pacific. The flow of weapons to Taiwan, investments to close the China “missile gap”, and Quad evolution are the other metrics that US allies in eastern Asia are watching.
India is the only Quad member that lacks a maritime moat with Central Asia. So it will have to fashion a Guard Northwest policy that will require security cooperation with the likes of Iran and Russia, irrespective of US views of these countries. However, any jihadi from Kabul or Kandahar has to come via the welcome mat of Pakistan. The Narendra Modi government should communicate that the Balakot standard is still in place. Whatever happens in Afghanistan, any major terrorist attack on India will result in military retaliation against Pakistan. India’s border with Central Asia is ultimately its border with Pakistan.
The curtain came down on the original Great Game in a similar fashion. Britain and Russia gave up their conflicting imperial drives into Central Asia because of a common and more dangerous German threat, signing the 1907 Anglo-Russian entente. When big powers begin to joust, consolidation takes place along the periphery. US reliability has taken a knock. US competency is in tatters. But an unfolding US grand strategy has become clearer and more credible. And that is where India’s greater interest lies.
The views expressed are personal